Friday, October 2, 2009

There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly

Created by Jeremy Holmes

Chronicle Books, 2009

$16.99, ages 4-8, 18 pages

In Simms Taback's Caldecott Honor version of the old lady who swallowed a fly, we saw how absurd it was for a lady to pack in so many creatures into her stomach. Now, thanks to the darkly funny mind of Jeremy Holmes, we get even closer to her gastric dilemma and discover that the creatures she swallowed had a mischievous side.

In this irresistible redo, Holmes changes the book format into something wickedly macabre -- the book is both a story and a flat replica of the old lady meeting her end. He also imbues the creatures with a bit of cunning, adding in curious dining outfits and implements that suggest they knew what they were getting into. Yet, Holmes doesn't stray from all tradition. He stays faithful to the lyrics of the classic song by Alan Mills and Rose Bonne, and in doing so makes his version feel as authentic as any that came before.

One of the most amusing parts of the book is looking for the story. First you have to slip off the sleeve of the book, which doubles as the old lady's herringbone jacket. The book is a long thin paperboard box painted to look like the lady. She's a stout gal with a dour, square face dominated by big round spectacles that fills out the top third of the book. At her midriff above spindly legs, an argyle dress opens (with all modesty, I must add) to reveal the first page of the story. On the left is the beginning of the rhyme and to the right, a square gut containing the fly that made it down her throat. It's a fascinating creation, with the old lady clad in muted, Victorian attire and the box suggesting a vintage papier-mâché collectible.

The story begins of course with the fly, who by the looks of his pirate hat, telescope and map of the world, either flies prepared for any adventure (and found himself quite by accident down her esophagus) or had every intention of flying down the old lady's throat and exploring her digestive system. We are left wondering if this poor lady was really a nut or was so appalled to have a bug in her system that she simply lost her perspective. On the opposite page, we see the refrain "I don't know why she swallowed a fly" in italics and wonder if perhaps Holmes was still trying to figure this out as well.

But of course as we know, the fly never lives long enough to have much of a look. In comes the spider, dangling down by a thread. He's quite dapper, dressed in a purple polka dot tie, button-down shirt made of newspaper and eight dress shoes. All 12 eyes sit jumbled atop his head and above him hangs a fly chart, the web where he keeps track of his prey. Below in a sea of gastric juices, a skeleton head wearing the pirate hat, a wing, and the map, are sinking to parts not drawn, suggesting the fly's demise.

By the next page, all that's left of the spider are three eyeballs dangling from the mouth of a long-necked bird and all eight shoes floating in the digestive sea. The bird, who arrived in the old lady's stomach wearing a sheriff's badge, bandanna, cowboy hat and boots, must scrunch her neck just to fit into the cramped organ, reminding readers how crowded the old lady's tummy is becoming.

Next we spy the cat, decked out in a chef's hat, with fork and spoon in hand, about to dine on the bird, who has just been served up on a platter. But little does the cat know that on the next page he'll be sawed in half by a dog who is dressed as a magician -- and, from the looks of his skeleton-white head and stitched mouth, looks as macabre as a character from a Tim Burton movie.

Soon a snake with a clown nose, collar and wig slithers down the old lady's throat and opens her mouth over the dog as she prepares to pull him. The dog futilely tries to prop the snake's mouth open and sinks deeper into the gastric juices. By the next page, the snake too is gobbled up. All we see is her tail sticking out of the mouth of a cow, but not your typical grass-loving kind. This one has the horns of devil, a trident-like tail and Gothic wings, and is so big Holmes has to fold out the page to fit her in.

By the time we get to the horse, the rhyme is up. Only a small block print of a horse is needed, for once the old lady swallows the horse, "She died, of course." And that's where Holmes really shines.

Turning to the last page, a paperboard slat shifts to the left and the old lady's eyes slide shut. It's deliciously ghastly and matter-of-fact, with the old lady's body now arranged for an eternity of rest. Her dress is back in place, her arms (now skeletal) are crossed over her chest, and her fly swatter is clutched in her hand.

Though darker than other takes on the rhyme, Holmes' version never becomes gory (though you could draw a comparison between it and the Gothic works of the eccentric late American illustrator and writer Edward Gorey, both cleverly wry.) I can't recommend this book enough -- one look at it and you know you have to have it (not only to read but to add to your Halloween decor).

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